Dramatising the great events of history is more of a reflection of how modern society is trying to come to terms with the tragedies and traumas of the past
The Treaty was a sell-out, announced Erskine Childers — via Twitter. But this wasn’t a ripple in the space-time continuum. The Erskine Childers on Twitter is the great-grandson of the Erskine Childers who was executed by the Free State in 1922 for opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty in arms. The Treaty the contemporary Childers was referring to was, in fact, my new play, which tells the story of the 1921 Treaty negotiations and has sold out its short run at the National Concert Hall (in a production by Fishamble Theatre Company).
That piece of good fortune hides an underlying frustration: the reason we sold out so quickly is capacity is restricted because of Covid. (An online broadcast will allow us to reach a wider audience.) Still, I am grateful to have the play on stage at all. In pandemics — as Shakespeare knew — theatres are the first to close. Earlier in this pandemic, I spoke to James Shapiro, one of the world’s foremost Shakespearean scholars, about that experience. During Shakespeare’s years at the Globe Theatre, London was riven by plague — it recurred almost annually from 1603 to 1610. Once a week, the “plague bill” was published — the equivalent of our Nphet briefings. If the death toll rose above 30, social distancing was enforced and the theatres were closed. But the government — like our own — gave Shakespeare’s company grants to tide it over, and the theatre sprang back to life as soon as it was allowed.
Neither Shakespeare nor his contemporaries wrote about the plague: after all, who would go out now to see a play about Covid? But what Shapiro realised when he started to look afresh at Shakespeare, provoked by our pandemic, was that the tragedies of this period — such as Coriolanus, Macbeth and King Lear — reflected the impact of the plague in other ways. They are about “what happens when one world ends and another begins”, he told me; they are plays about societies dealing with terrifying ruptures and about cultures dealing with trauma.
It was a different trauma that was on my mind when I started writing The Treaty in 2018: that of Brexit. In the hardline-Brexiteer faction of the Tory party, I could hear uncanny echoes of the Tory “diehards” who tried to block concessions to the Irish 100 years ago. Yet looking at Brexit through Irish eyes of a century ago also provoked a grudging empathy: what were the Irish attempting but “to take back control” — despite the economic self-harm that would entail?
As the Brexit crisis appeared to recede, I trimmed those references back, although they are still inescapable. But a question I can’t answer is to what extent Covid has infected the play. Shapiro’s assessment of Shakespeare’s pandemic-era plays seems pertinent, because The Treaty is, at root, a play about a culture dealing with trauma and rupture.
That is something I have only really discovered in the rehearsal room. Great playwrights such as Brian Friel and Tom Murphy delivered finished plays in time for the first rehearsal, but I follow Aaron Sorkin: scripts are not finished, he says, they are confiscated. Being in the rehearsal room is a bit like being in an editorial meeting with Vincent Browne when I started out: I deliver my draft; every word of it is challenged, questioned, chewed up, spat out; and then I slink off and do it again.
I start off the process obsessive about accuracy and fealty to my sources. That may make for good history-writing, but it makes for lousy drama. The cast push for greater clarity about what’s at stake emotionally. That pushes me back to the source material, searching for emotional clues. I phone an old friend, Aidan McQuade, who won Mastermind in 2013 when he had Michael Collins as one of his specialist subjects. (Aidan has recently published a gripping War of Independence novel, The Undiscovered Country). He prompts me to take a close look at Collins’s role in the death of the RIC officer Percival Lea-Wilson. Fishamble’s literary manager, Gavin Kostick, observes that a scene between Collins and Winston Churchill feels like it could have taken place over a bottle of whiskey; that sends me back to Churchill’s memoirs, searching for war stories to go with the whiskey.
Compressing two months of negotiations into less than two hours of drama requires quickened speech, invention and, at times, distortion. But as we leave the safe space of the rehearsal room and confront our first audiences, I worry if they will accept those distortions. When you wrestle with history on stage, you also wrestle with the defenders of history.
On Thursday night, after our first preview, I returned home to an email from Colum Kenny, biographer of Arthur Griffith and a regular contributor to these pages. Earlier this year, Kenny made a substantial discovery in the archives of the Houses of Parliament, unearthing a memo about the boundary commission long referred to as having been signed by Arthur Griffith; the allegation repeated in many accounts of the Treaty negotiations was that, by signing this memo, Griffith had — in naivety or duplicity — given away a crucial Irish position. The memo, Kenny proved, had not been signed by Griffith: the story that it had been signed by the man was, he argued, a calumny. (See Kenny’s new book, Midnight in London: The Anglo-Irish Treaty Crisis 1921, for the gripping full account.)
In the play, I have Griffith sign the memo. Kenny is appalled: this is a “cruel falsification”, he writes, and appeals to me to rewrite it, suggesting apposite lines. I argue the moment is crucial to the compressed and heightened telling of the story on stage. My job is not to give the audience a full, accurate account of the negotiations but to help them feel the different burdens carried by the protagonists — and thereby identify whatever trauma they may be carrying with the trauma manifest on stage.
This is the catharsis that Aristotle identified as the purpose of tragedy, more than 2,000 years ago. Ever since, playwrights have looked to history for stories. But those history plays are never really about the history: they are always about the present, and the trauma of today.
As I write, opening night looms. For all this talk of trauma and tragedy, my most immediate worry is: will the audience laugh? When you write plays about politics, you have to surprise people with gags. The Treaty teams, after all, knew how to enjoy themselves: the Irish threw a party for Collins’s 31st birthday; the British took a break one evening to watch a new film adapted from a novel by Churchill; they all went to the theatre. Like them, we could all do with a night out and a bit of a laugh.
During the first preview, in a scene set at a party thrown by Lady Lavery, there is an unscripted silence. Michael Collins is supposed to have joined the party, but where is he? Lavery, Churchill and Lord Birkenhead improvise gamely. Eventually, Collins, in full tuxedo, bursts in. The script had not allowed the actor, the superb Patrick Moy, time for his costume change. So I spend Friday morning writing a new mini-scene to fix that.
Between historical controversies and the needs of stagecraft, there may yet be further demands on this writer. Sometimes I long for somebody to confiscate the script.
Tickets for Dublin are sold out. ‘The Treaty’ is in London from December 2-4. A film of the play is online from December 6-12. fishamble.com